The Best Songs of 2021

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You can view our list of The Best Albums of 2021 here.

There were so many great songs this year that we honestly had a hard time narrowing it down. Tracks that put the finishing touches on some of our favorite albums (“traitor”, “Justified”, “That’s What I Want”) and songs that stood alone as brilliant moments of hope, pain, and resolve (“Silk Chiffon”, “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version)”. We even had our first track from a comedy special crack the list. Although it’s admittedly hard to have a laugh while listening to “That Funny Feeling”.

While we wait on a new year of tracks to fill our playlists, we’ll finish out the remainder of 2021 jamming along to these. Take a look at our list below and let us know what songs stood out to you.

15. Royal Blood – “Typhoons”

One of the lead singles from the UK rock duo’s album of the same name, “Typhoons” is a dance-ready track that explores the damage of living with thoughts constantly swirling in your head. As someone who lives everyday reliving scenarios and ideas and hoping for better outcomes, Royal Blood manage to find the hopelessness and ecstasy of the situation against a steady beat and garage rock guitars (“I need waking up, I should face the truth / I could calm the storm if I wanted to”). – Kyle Schultz

14. Bo Burnham – “That Funny Feeling”

I would consider anyone who says they didn’t like Inside by Bo Burnham to be lying a little. It was an incredibly versatile representation of how crazy everyone went in quarantine, and offered a fresh take on almost any genre we could think of, including the campfire song with “That Funny Feeling”. When the theaters opened up again, a friend and I saw Inside on the big screen, and what could be a better example of the song than seeing the Netflix logo at a theater? Every track in the special is devastating in one way or another, but somehow the juxtaposition of “A gift shop at the gun range / A mass shooting at the mall” hits so much closer than any of us want it to. Top it off with the Phoebe Bridgers cover and you have not only a perfect picture of both how timeless singing songs about how messed up and sad society is, but also how deeply Inside touched culture this year. – Nadia Alves

13. Holly Humberstone – “Scarlett”

I first heard Holly Humberstone while driving alone at night, which turns out to be the perfect setting to experience her latest EP, The Walls Are Way Too Thin. “Scarlett” is Humberstone’s best track to date, tapping into a soft but serious indie rock sound that lets her explore themes of hurt and heartbreak with  a sense of melancholy and resolve. “‘Cause I cried all the summer away / Oh, you left me waiting on a heartbreak”, she sings to launch into one of the year’s most memorable choruses. But “Scarlett”, and the EP as a whole, aren’t meant to wallow in the pain so much as use the songs as a way to process and move forward, made ever so clear by the track’s final line: “I don’t need you now”. – Kiel Hauck

12. Graduating Life – “Crushed & Smothered”

On a base level, “Crushed & Smothered” is a standard emo rock song from Graduating Life. What sets it apart from the genre is the raw, excruciating energy behind it. The song demands the listener unleash their inner torments (“Show me what angers you / Ball up your fist show me why you exist, fight back / Don’t be defined by the cuts on your wrist / Go!”) before unleashing an orgasm of sound and guitar solos at differing tempos. “Crushed & Smothered” is a melodic release of emotion, rage and angst that pull the lyrics describing an anxiety attack under the rug, if only for a moment. – Kyle Schultz

11. Silk Sonic – “Leave the Door Open”

I would call this the yummiest song of 2021. When this song came out I was instantly enamored. It brought me back to a time i wasn’t even around for. The way it equally brings us back to Motown and keeps us in the modern age is not an easy feat, and only doable by artists with an intense knowledge of music history. Enter Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak. Every song on An Evening With Silk Sonic deserves to be on top lists this year, simply because of how smooth they are. The hardest part of ranking them would be picking the best song on the album. For me, this single perfectly encapsulates the album as a whole, and ushers us into another era. – Nadia Alves

10. Kacey Musgraves – “Justified”

“Healing doesn’t happen in a straight line”. That simple, yet powerful line that serves as the heartbeat of Kacey Musgraves’ Star-Crossed is what sparked an hour-long podcast we recorded on why the album is the perfect encapsulation of the experience of divorce. “Justified” is inarguably the best track from Star-Crossed, in part because it most closely resembles the sonic excellence of Golden Hour, but also because it reveals the thematic and artistic next evolution of Musgraves, both as a musician, and more importantly, as a human. Throughout the album, she mines the feelings of grief and confusion that accompany such a traumatic event, but a track like “Justified” offers Musgraves the space to explore the sometimes prickly feelings and motivations that are necessary to move on. – Kiel Hauck

9. Real Friends – “Storyteller”

Real Friends’ stellar Torn in Two EP blasted an impressive lineup of songs that were stronger than they deserved to be, but amongst those jams was “Storyteller”, a song that duels with itself whether to be a soft emotional ballad or a hard rock emo anthem. “Storyteller” speaks to the animalistic instincts we have when someone we love lies to us, and the painful ways we it eats at us late at night (“212 degrees rushing forcefully through my veins and arteries / No chance of getting sleep, as you soundly rest”) and the cleansing way release of anguish and anger (“You’re a storyteller / What you buried deep resurfaced / You’re a liar, liar, liar”) that comes from calling this person out for how they’ve hurt us. – Kyle Schultz

8. girl in red – “Serotonin”

I had a tough year mentally. An unexpected loss at the end of 2020 basically took me out of the game emotionally all year. I’ve felt like I was just kind of existing and surviving, and one of the tracks that brought me back to myself a little bit is ”Serotonin” by girl in red. It’s fun and truthful, and doesn’t make me feel bad for the way I feel, the way a lot of songs try to make me squash the things I’m dealing with down deep inside. This is probably the song I’m most grateful for this year. Produced by Billie Eilish’s half brother FINNEAS, this is a track that will stay in the indie pop circles for years to come.– Nadia Alves

7. Lil Nas X – “THATS WHAT I WANT”

After opening track and first single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”, the next track on Lil Nas X’s brilliant debut to cause your ears to perk is “That’s What I Want”. It’s the kind of infectious and instantly memorable moment that “Old Town Road” promised us when he arrived on the scene two years ago. But what makes “That’s What I Want” so brilliant is its subversive nature. As easily as you can roll down your windows on a sunny day and sing along, you could also curl up into a ball and cry. “These days I’m way too alone / And I’m known for giving love away”, he sings right before his pleading chorus of, “I want someone to love me”. To experience Montero, and Lil Nas X in general, is to turn the prism in your hand, taking note of every angle and color. “That’s What I Want” showcases the brilliance and promise of one of the most important new pop artists on the planet. – Kiel Hauck

6. Olivia Rodrigo – “traitor”

Though her debut album, SOUR, spanned across genres, one song stood out among the pack: the quiet and somber “traitor”. Consisting of mostly sober synth, exhausted drums, tired acoustic guitar and Rodrigo’s exasperated vocals, “traitor” is the epitome of the frustration and pain of a dead relationship.

The song itself is a quiet affair, but it speaks to the raw emotion of lost love. From the almost whispered, “Ain’t it funny? / All the twisted games, all the questions you used to avoid”, to the pointed emphasis of, “Don’t you DARE forget about the way / You betrayed me”, Rodrigo hammers each word with a new form of heartbreak that nails the most innate and intimate emotions for what is a shared experience among almost everyone who experiences love. – Kyle Schultz

5. Willow feat. Travis Barker – “t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l”

Ah yes, Willow Smith. The biggest surprise for me this year both in albums and in singles, is the jump Willow made into the sea that is alternative music. And if that jump was in the Olympics, she would win gold. I am literally in love with this song. Travis Barker is only a crutch left to the side for her. He’s there if she needs him, but everyone can see that she’s able to stand perfectly fine on her own. It’s been a while since Willow Smith has released music, but when I bought  “Whip My Hair” from the iTunes store in 2010, it wasn’t hard for me to see that she has something special musically. Not only is the video (stylized as a “performance visual”) the perfect companion piece, it affords us a view of Willow as she should be seen: a strong, young woman full of talent. – Nadia Alves

4. Stand Atlantic feat. nothing,nowhere – “deathwish”

When I handed out a perfect score to Stand Atlantic’s Pink Elephant last summer, I certainly didn’t expect that the next song they would release would be the best thing the band has ever done. “Deathwish” hit just in time for summer and further blurred the band’s lines between pop and punk, which they so excellently began smearing on Pink Elephant. A song that’s just as easy to dance to as it is to mosh to, “deathwish” finds Bonnie Fraser tapping into a new level as a vocalist. Her pre-chorus, which crescendos with the line, “If you’re leaving, could you quit saying ‘bye’” right before the guitars and synths crash through your speakers is one of the highlights of 2021. Of course, the punk elite arrived right on cue to dismiss the track as too glitzy. The band responded with the raucous and ferocious “molotov [OK]” in November, which could’ve easily made this list as well. – Kiel Hauck

3. Taylor Swift – “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version)”

Of all the music released in 2021, one song has seemed to stand tall amongst the competition. Taylor Swift’s 10-minute version of “All Too Well” is a behemoth of a song. While on a base level, it seems like an extended version of a single from almost a decade ago, this version of “All Too Well” is closer to what Swift originally intended the song to be.

What makes it stand out again after all this time is the fact that not only are there additional lyrics, it somehow hits and hurts more than it did upon original release. This is a feral pain that not only never quite healed, it embodies the heartbreak we all feel from our first broken love.

The 10-minute version of “All Too Well” would be easy to write off as a “cash grab” for the rerelease of Red, but the song was an overnight phenomenon. Accompanied by a short film and smashing the time limit for an SNL performance, Swift indulged her artistry in its purest form. While the original release may have been forced to scale back to a five-minute ballad, the 10-minute version not only adds more lines (“Check the pulse and come back swearing it’s the same / After three months in the grave / And then you wondered where it went to as I reached for you / But all I felt was shame and you held my lifeless frame”), it managed to hit a nerve of our collective consciousness that it may not have when she originally released it all those years ago. – Kyle Schultz

2. Greta Van Fleet – “Heat Above”

TikTok’s greatest success story this year (other than Noodle the Pug) is definitely Greta Van Fleet. A band once ridiculed for being an almost identical, albeit younger, Led Zeppelin is now at the forefront of modern rock. With “Heat Above”, the band comes into their own sonically and stylistically, and is the perfect opening track to their latest album The Battle At Garden’s Gate.

Josh Kiszka’s vocals are unmatched, only closely followed by the harmony he and his siblings have musically. It’s no wonder I can’t stop listening to it. Before the release of the music video, which is simple and allows the song to do the legwork, the band said, “Thematically, we are dead center in the cult of Heaven, surreal, strange, alive, and free.” And the video does just that. It elevates what is already an incredible piece of craftsmanship and provides the perfect visual to get lost in.

I never considered myself a real Greta Van Fleet fan; the hair metal of the 70s and 80s has never appealed to me like the folk and pop of those eras do, but “Heat Above” packs just the right amount of punch to make me a believer. – Nadia Alves

1. MUNA feat. Phoebe Bridgers – “Silk Chiffon”

From the opening moments of “Silk Chiffon”, as Katie Gavin croons, “Sun down and I’m feeling lifted / Downtown, cherry lipstick” over the strum of an acoustic guitar, there’s a sense of bliss that washes over you in the way that only the most perfect of pop songs can do. The track is an anthem of queer love, full of warmth and whimiscal imagery that captures those all-too-familiar feelings of innocent and exciting love on fleeting summer nights. 

I first heard the song on the night it was performed for the very first time, as MUNA opened for Phoebe Bridgers in Indianapolis. The band’s previous work, most notably their breakthrough 2019 album Saves the World, is marked by energetic synthpop – something the band does as well as anyone. But “Silk Chiffon” feels like the opening of a new chapter in which you could envision MUNA fully crossing over into the mainstream. 

It’s a track that seems to perfectly capture the trio’s personality while grafting in Phoebe’s as well. Just listen to the crunch of the guitar as she enters the second verse with her lines of, “I’m high and I’m feeling anxious / Inside a CVS”. For all of its brightness and charm, my favorite thing about “Silk Chiffon” is that it simply makes me feel happy. And I’ll be damned if that’s not just about the best feeling a song can inspire right now. – Kiel Hauck

Honorable Mention:

Baby Keem and Kendrick Lamar – “family ties”
Olivia Rodrigo – “good 4 u”
Spiritbox – “Circle with Me”
CHVRCHES – “Final Girl”
Architects – “Black Lung”

Posted by Kiel Hauck

Podcast: Reacting to “Red (Taylor’s Version)”

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It’s been a week since Taylor Swift blessed us with Red (Taylor’s Version). And we have thoughts! Kiel Hauck is joined by fellow It’s All Dead-ians Kyle Schultz and Nadia Alves to delve into the nooks and crannies of all 30 tracks of this new release. They share takes on the best and most interesting re-recorded songs and weigh in some of the best “From the Vault” tracks that round out the album. Is the 10-minute version of “All Too Well” better than the original? Are there still easter eggs within the album that have yet to be uncovered by Swiftie Sleuths? Who had the best guest appearance on the album? And what album is coming next? All of these questions (and more) are addressed – listen in!

Subscribe to our Podcast on Apple or Spotify

Posted by Kiel Hauck

Reflecting On: Michelle Branch – The Spirit Room

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A couple of times a year, I find myself spending days at a time inside The Spirit Room. I’ve said it countless times in the two decades since its release, but the debut album from Michelle Branch is perfect. And as it reaches its 20th anniversary, I’ve thought a lot about its legacy, and how the album unexpectedly became a blueprint of sorts.

We’ve talked extensively this year about Sour, the debut from Olivia Rodrigo, and how it so perfectly encapsulates the emotions and experience of adolescence. One of the many things that makes Sour so impressive is Rodrigo’s ability to shape-shift within genre, often tapping into nostalgic pop rock sounds that feel both fresh and familiar. It’s hard to listen to the album and not think of Branch.

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You can buy or stream The Spirit Room on Apple Music

The story of how The Spirit Room came to be back in 2001 has been reported in detail, but it’s still fascinating to think about a teenager operating independently from major label influence and creating an album so different from what was expected from a young female artist at the time. It worked, and what followed was a new wave of young singer-songwriters following in her pop rock footsteps. Even Taylor Swift has spoken of the album’s influence in her own writing.

It was a sound that clearly caught my attention at the time, and Branch’s lonely, bedroom daydream songwriting resonated as well. When I listen to the album now, I’m transported back to a very specific time in my life in the best way. There isn’t another album that captures those feelings quite as well for me. When I hear “Goodbye to You”, I see Branch performing the song from the stage of The Bronze on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When I hear “All You Wanted” I’m reminded of late night drives in my first car. “Everywhere” transports me back to my freshman dorm room.

For all of these reasons, it was captivating to hear Branch’s 20th anniversary re-recording of the album. Unlike Swift’s current explorations of her past work (which I also love), Branch has allowed the passage of time to change her approach to these tracks. Her voice sounds slightly weathered, the songs have more room to breathe and move at a slightly slower pace. If you close your eyes, you can imagine her playing these songs to a small audience in a smoky lounge room. There’s an innocence that’s missing and it gives the album an entirely new feeling. The fact that it works this well speaks to the timeless beauty of the songwriting.

Last month, I purchased a ticket to Branch’s live stream performance of the album, expecting a full band rendition of the songs I know so well. When the stream began with Branch sitting on a stool, holding an acoustic guitar and strumming her way through “Everywhere”, I was taken aback. But by the opening moments of second track “You Get Me”, I was sold. The songs just work in every context, and in this case, some of them became even more alive with emotion and meaning. 

The early years of the 2000s were a transitional period for popular music, which is perhaps why it feels as though The Spirit Room sometimes gets forgotten in conversations around modern classic albums. It feels out of place when you think about the final gasps of bubblegum pop giving way to the oncoming avalanche of garage rock, hip hop and pop punk. But taken in a vacuum, it’s hard to poke holes in the album. It’s stellar songwriting paired with impeccable production. It moves. It captures hopeless romantic feelings you chase into your adulthood without ever feeling forced or cliché. It opened a new door for young female songwriters to lean into their own individual sounds. It invites you to get lost within it again and again.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple pop culture outlets and was previously an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife, daughter, and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Podcast: The Best Albums of 2021 (So Far)

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The year is half over. How is it possible? Only scientists can explain. But we’ll use the opportunity to break down some of the best music that’s been released so far this year. Kiel Hauck kicks things off by sharing summertime Warped Tour memories and discussing the return of live music. With tours being announced left and right, we’re all making big decisions about when, where, and how we return to concert settings. Then Kiel shares some words about some of the albums that have been impacting the Long Live the Music crew so far in 2021, from Architects to Olivia Rodrigo to J. Cole and more. Listen in!

Subscribe to our Podcast on Apple or Spotify

Posted by Kiel Hauck

Review: Olivia Rodrigo – SOUR

In the last 24 hours, I have listened to Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album, SOUR, no less than seven times. Last night, I was enthralled with it, wiping tears from my eyes at some of the lyricism, and even boldly considered it album of the year. But having sat with SOUR, the more I have wondered what connected me so intensely with an artist half my age. Rodrigo bounds from genre to genre in a way that feels natural and familiar. In fact, it sounds too familiar at times. My experience with SOUR is one of pure joy at seeing a young artist find her voice from the opposite side of the music I tend to listen to, and I still believe it will be in contention for album of the year for me in a few months time. However, SOUR is the first album I have listened to that made me wonder where the line is between paying homage to other artists and just rewriting the songs by them that you love.

You can buy or stream SOUR on Apple Music.

My first exposure to Olivia Rodrigo was her SNL performance one week ago (I somehow utterly missed the release of “drivers license”), when I heard “good 4 u” playing in the background and literally dropped what I was doing to go see who was singing. That led to a week of anxiously awaiting the release of SOUR.  

Rodrigo manages to take the listener through a tour de force through genre in ways where it’s easy to see who her influences most likely are. There are bits of the grunge of Hole (“brutal”), the quirky pop of Regina Spektor (“traitor”), the pop punk of Paramore (“good 4 u”), the percussive experimentation of Death Cab For Cutie (“deja vu”) and the pop elements of Taylor Swift (“1 step forward, 3 steps back”). I don’t say that to try to take anything away from her, I mean parts of the album instantly feel familiar—”1 step forward, 3 steps back” list Taylor and Jack Antonoff with a writing credit due to its inspiration from Swift’s song “New Year’s Day”.

Where Rodrigo stands tall is in the songs that don’t sound like an homage, such as “happier”, with a doo-wop melody, or the folk acoustic guitars of “enough for you”. Although the crunching guitars of “good 4 u” are a welcome surprise, it’s hard not to instantly think of Paramore.

The absolute highlight of SOUR though, is in the incredible lyricism and vocals Rodrigo delivers throughout. Each song is a swirling tempest of heartbreak and carries an emotional weight that cuts straight to the bone.

Rodrigo as a singer is utterly inspirational. Ranging from whispers (“1 step forward, 3 step back”) to bouncing explorations of higher notes (“enough for you”), her vocals are tested song after song. She even manages to emphasize single words at the emotional apex in a song to make the lyric utterly deadly, such as in “traitor” (“Don’t you dare forget about the way / you betrayed me”). 

It would be easy to write Rodrigo off as just another artist singing about heartache—there are a lot of songs about it on SOUR. But that would be a disservice to her lyricism. SOUR explores the transition from adolescence to adulthood through the viewpoint of a young woman, heartbreak and all. Lead single “drivers license” explores the utter devastation of young love—finally having the freedom to drive anywhere, but finding yourself trapped by the orbit of one person (“And I just can’t imagine how you could be so okay now that I’m gone. / Guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me / Cause you said ‘forever’ now I drive alone past your street”).

By the end, it’s easy to see the growth as she worries about close friends and the poor influence of past generations, such as “hope ur ok” (“Well, I hope you know how proud I am you were created / With the courage to unlearn all of their hatred / But, God, I hope that you’re happier today, ‘cause I love you / And I hope that you’re okay”).

Meanwhile, the insecurity of growing up seeing “perfect” idols is explored in “jealousy, jealousy” over a simple bass riff (“I kinda wanna throw my phone across the room / cause all I see are girls too good to be true”).

SOUR somehow flawlessly encompasses a pure venom of heartbreak with maturity that sees beyond the base level. Meanwhile, the lyrical content transcends age to form a bridge between generations. Her lyrics are biting, simple and heartfelt. Olivia Rodrigo might not be the most unique artist to exist, but she is such a sponge to influence that it sounds new and enthralling. But that is also its biggest setback

SOUR is a masterful debut album from a young artist, but it spends too much time feeling like a “best of” to the music that inspired her. It makes for a captivating listen, but its difficult to find Rodrigo in her own space. It’s easy to make comparisons to Taylor Swift and Paramore for good reason, but that doesn’t make the music any less than its whole. It’s just that in reflection, it feels like a trick to grab your immediate attention before a song that sounds like its own beast takes hold.

Rodrigo is a confluence of sound. Her influences on her sleeve, it’s wonderful to see her paying respect to the bands she loves, but its heartbreaking not to hear more of her in them. SOUR will rightly be adored and is justifiably going to be played on repeat constantly throughout the summer. If it’s anything to judge her by, SOUR is the perfect springboard toward finding an incredibly inspired artist leaning slightly less on her idols on her next album.

4.5/5

by Kyle Schultz

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Kyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and killed a spider with such vigor that he broke his broom in half. He’s pretty strong. Tell your friends.

Podcast: Demi Lovato’s Comeback and Taylor Swift’s “Fearless”

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Demi Lovato has returned with a reformative new album, Dancing with the Devil…the Art of Starting Over. Kiel Hauck and Nadia Alves examine Demi’s return to the scene from battles with addiction and abuse and what this new album has to say about her journey and the power structures present in the music scene. They then dive into Taylor Swift‘s re-released version of Fearless and discuss what her current re-recording project means for not only her legacy, but the current state of the music industry. Finally, they chat about Julien Baker’s new album Little Oblivions and their thoughts on the return of live music later this year. Take a listen!

Subscribe to our Podcast on Apple or Spotify

Posted by Kiel Hauck

Review: Taylor Swift – evermore

At one point in my life, I was astounded that some of my favorite artists were able to release new albums in back-to-back years. What a naive summer child I was. Taylor Swift’s third album in less than a year-and-a-half is an astounding achievement. The morning it was announced, I almost couldn’t believe that it wasn’t just an album of folklore B-sides. Swift’s ninth studio album, evermore, is its own beast, despite being a sister to this year’s folklore. Although not quite the achievement that folklore felt like at the time, the fact that evermore exists is less impressive than the fact that it is another of Swift’s absolute definitive albums.

You can buy or stream Evermore on Apple Music.

Considering that all of Swift’s records since 2012’s Red have sounded drastically different from each other, the biggest surprise from evermore is that it still holds its own identity despite being a continuation and a sequel album. Keeping most of the elements of folklore’s indie folk songwriting, evermore leans more toward indie pop with more of a polish than its predecessor. Although silence itself seems to act as an instrument at times, it’s less prominent than it was before, even on Lover, leaving an album that stands on its own as much as it highlights the best of Swift. 

Co-written with folklore’s superstar cast of Aaron Dessner of The National (who appear on “coney island”), Jack Antonoff, William Bowery (Joe Alwyn) and Bon Iver, and including an appearance by Haim on the outlaw country song “no body, no crime”, it’s no surprise that evermore follows similar beats to its predecessor. However, where folklore found hope and light throughout its runtime, evermore is more downtrodden. Evermore is folklore’s shadow in substance as well as release date. It may be difficult to see both albums as individuals in the future since they reflect one another in hindsight, somewhat similar to David Bowie’s famed Berlin Trilogy. 

While folklore provided some type of hope in this insane year, evermore shows the tiredness that the world faces 10 months into the pandemic. This is conveyed through the fictionalized stories written for each song, something that was highlighted the most on folklore. Though these stories are darker, they’re no less powerful and harken to the best of country songs, despite only housing a couple of songs that hint at a reflection of her roots. 

Driven by piano and acoustic guitar, evermore finds its footing standing between folklore’s indie vibe and Red’s mixture of pop and country. It captures a more produced effort than folklore, while balancing the sound between a mixture of genres. Although similar in texture, the albums depart in theme and sound just enough to stand apart.

Many songs on evermore reflect the sound of lost loves and the failings of love. Songs like “champagne problems” tell the story if a failed marriage proposal, and people telling the would be groom that the girl suffered from mental problems as a way to explain the outcome (“‘She would’ve made such a lovely bride / what a shame she’s fucked in the head,’ they said”). 

The deceptively titled “happiness” looks at the life after the destructive ending of what was once considered a great relationship (“Past the curses and cries / Beyond the terror in the nightfall / Haunted by the look in my eyes, that would’ve loved you for a lifetime / Leave it all behind, and there is happiness”). 

Although it’s harder to find standout tracks on the album, such as folklore’s “the last great american dynasty”, those songs still exist. “Marjorie” explores the regret of letting a loved one pass without learning everything they had to teach (“I should’ve asked you questions / I should’ve asked you how to be, asked you to write down for me / Should’ve kept every grocery store receipt”). 

Evermore is an album that delves into the melancholy just as much as its sister, folklore, delved into the positive. Although not as striking or as distinct as its immediate predecessors, evermore finds its identity by blending the last two albums sonically despite exploring the darkness of relationships. Despite the extensive ground covered in evermore, there is a constant threat of the album always being overshadowed and ultimately lost in Swift’s discography, despite how unique it is.

4/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and longs for the holidays next year, when there is a possibility that enough family members will be vaccinated enough to be able to cough in their eyes. HE WANTS TO COUGH IN EYES!!!

The Best Songs of 2020

You can view our list of The Best Albums of 2020 here.

For many of us, our music listening experience in 2020 was vastly different from any other year. I honestly have no memories of jamming to songs in my car, hearing music over the loud speaker at a bar, or enjoying live music with a crowd of people on a warm, summer night. In 2020, my memories are mostly indoors, and very often, alone.

So what songs do we turn to in those moments? What tracks kept us company through the ups and mostly downs of a year lived largely in quarantine? We did our best to build a list of songs that captured the emotional highs and lows we felt, along with tracks that spoke something meaningful or something new. Take a look – and a listen – and let us know your favorite tracks in the replies!

15. AJR – “Bang!”

Here’s a real wild card. I was supposed to see AJR play this spring but then quarantine started. They’re a recent addition to my Spotify, but my brother is a big fan and has been trying to get me to listen to them for about a year or so now (Hi Nick!). He was largely unsuccessful in his attempts, but their radio single “Bang!” was when I hopped on the train. I’m not generally a Top 40 gal, but this song is refreshing. It’s radio friendly but original. Lyrically, it’s about growing up and how difficult that is, but sonically we’re at a party. It’s a promising single for the band’s fourth album and I’m excited to see how it fits in with the rest of it (We can expect that project early next year.) – Nadia Alves

14. The Bombpops – “Double Arrows Down”

“Double Arrows Down” is a raging punk song that focuses on guitarist/vocalist Poli Van Dam’s struggle with diabetes. Focused around an incident of passing out at a gas station due to complications from the disease, the song is equal parts terrifying and filled with rage (“I’m sitting there, in another cold pharmacy chair / Standing by while they suck my veins and wallet dry / I can write all these defiant songs, but my life is still reliant on machines”). The Bombpops portray the terror of this disease against a blazing punk riff and an electrifying pop chorus. The full horror and frustration of the disease is played out against the sound of rebellion, and hope to ultimately battle diabetes to the end. – Kyle Schultz

13. Juice Wrld – “Righteous”

Juice Wrld’s posthumous 2020 album Legends Never Die is a breathtaking view of what was to come from the emo rapper before his tragic passing last December from a drug-induced seizure. “Righteous”, the album’s lead single, serves as a haunting reflection on his mental health struggles and self-medication in an attempt to ease the pain. His words float gently atop the melancholy beat as he ponders on death and the cyclical nature of his addiction. “Taking medicine to fix all of the damage / My anxiety the size of a planet”, he confesses as his voice begins to rise. It’s a track that encapsulates the heart of a gifted artist gone far too soon. – Kiel Hauck

12. Twenty One Pilots – “Level of Concern”

For only releasing one song in 2020, Twenty One Pilots have had quite the impact this year. They released “Level of Concern” in April, when quarantine was only a two week affair and we all were baking sourdough and blending our coffee. Ah, simpler times. Personally, the guys have had a lot going on as well — Josh got married at the end of December, and Tyler and Jenna had their baby. They still found time to give us the perfect song about the absolute stress and anxiety of living through a pandemic, and it’s easily the most on-the-nose song of the year, which is why it makes my top songs for 2020. Plus it’s a bop. – Nadia Alves

11. All Time Low – “Sleeping In”

“Sleeping In” is the best song All Time Low have written in a decade. Seamlessly blending the pop direction of recent albums and the Warped Tour mosh pits of albums past, the song is the personification of the band’s career. All at once oozing in swagger and sexiness, “Sleeping In” is the song that All Time Low were always meant to write. The song manages to find restraint in the verses with a pop-funk mesh (“We got shit to do, you got work / But we fall right back into bed, like it’s all just a game / And we can’t help that, no we can’t help that”) and an all-out punk rock chorus that rivals All Time Low’s best (“If I said ‘I want your body,’ would you hold it against me?”). – Kyle Schultz

10. The 1975 – “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America”

I’ve long held that The 1975 are at their best when their songs are stripped down to an elemental level, which is what makes “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America” one of their best. A painful, folksy track about secret loves forbidden by religion reaches unexpected heights thanks to contributions from Phoebe Bridgers. Could anyone else on the planet make lines as simple as, “I’m in love with the girl next door / Her name is Claire” sound as emotional and meaningful through cracking, whispered vocals? When Bridgers and Matt Healy come together during the song’s final chorus, their song of love just beyond their reach becomes magic – and tragic: “Fortunately I believe / Lucky me”. – Kiel Hauck

9. Phoebe Bridgers – “Moon Song”

Though not released as one of the singles from Punisher, this track from the album is my favorite. I mentioned the raw emotion of it in my album review. Generally the freshness of a song will influence how much it sticks in my mind before I toss it aside for something shinier I get distracted by, but this one is a true jewel on the album, Phoebe’s discography, and the year in music. It’s rumored to be inspired by Conor Oberst, but lines like “You’re holding me like water in your hands” is all too relatable in a year where almost all of us have experienced intense loss and a redefining of priorities. I could have chosen any one of the songs from Punisher as one of my top songs this year — the album is truly that great — but “Moon Song” just has a little something extra that takes it all the way to the top for me. – Nadia Alves

8. KennyHoopla – “how will i rest in peace if i’m buried by a highway?//”

The title track from KennyHoopla’s debut EP is a renaissance song of genre, mashing new wave rock with garage punk and creating a modern dance track with the sensibilities of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The song is an energetic track that sounds ripped from the early 2000’s indie scene. However, the track is also a commentary on the uncomfortable nature of conforming to looking acceptable in society (“Culture is so claustrophobic / Claws to prove it hurts so good / And the party’s over / I’m still on your couch now, love”). The speed at which society moves and changes its opinion is a damaging thing (“How can I rest in peace if I’m buried by a highway? / Pain on the keys, is everybody still breathing? / Weight of my shadow, it gets more heavy, and it scares me, yeah”). The song turns the anxiety of the quickly changing world into a song that works equally on the dance floor as it does on a Midwestern emo playlist. – Kyle Schultz

7. Halsey – “you should be sad”

For the country ballad entry to the genre melting pot that is Manic, Halsey penned “you should be sad”, one of the rawest and most personal tracks of the year. It’s easy to mistake it as a break-up song (that was last year’s “Without Me”), but this is what you write when you’re on the other side, looking back at your ex with a smirk. Halsey tees things up mightily on the pre-chorus with the lines of, “No, you’re not half the man you think that you are / And you can’t fill the hole inside of you with money, drugs, and cars”, before bringing down the hammer with, “I’m so glad I never, ever had a baby with you / ‘Cause you can’t love nothing unless there’s something in it for you”. Ouch. It just might be the most empowered sad country song you’ll ever hear. – Kiel Hauck

6. Hayley Williams – “Crystal Clear”

In Hayley Williams’ solo project, Petals for Armor, she gave us songs about mental health, loss, femininity and new beginnings. Having the album since May really gave me a chance to pick through every track and I can confidently say “Crystal Clear” deserves a place on my top track list for the year. It’s the best closer I heard this year, and the way it brings the album full circle was necessary for something that began in such a dark and spiteful place. Hayley really took the time to truly process the past few years of her life and the decisions she’d made. Finishing it all off with a powerful song about forgiveness and clarity is a great lesson for all of us. – Nadia Alves

5. Taylor Swift – “Mad Woman”

One of the few venomous songs on Swift’s folklore, “Mad Woman” makes use of every line to fight back against an oppressive industry. On a base level, the song acts as a spiritual successor to Lover’s “The Man”, but there is much more to the song than the theme of “a woman scorned.” The song is at least partially a commentary against Scooter Braun, the music producer who bought all of Swift’s master recordings (“What do you sing on your drive home? / Do you see my face in the neighbor’s lawn? / Does she smile? Or does she mouth, ‘Fuck you forever?’”). One of Swift’s few rage-imbued songs, “Mad Woman” describes the toll taken on women who see themselves being taken advantage of by anyone (“Every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy / What about that? / And when you say I seem angry, I get more angry”). – Kyle Schultz

4. The Weeknd – “Faith”

The most exciting stretch of After Hours belongs to the three consecutive songs featuring production from Metro Boomin, culminating with “Faith”. Here, Abel Tesfaye’s vocals become an instrument in the mix as he circles the drain and loses his religion, confessing, “When I’m coming down is the most I feel alone”. It’s a startling lament to an addiction that creates a chasm between himself and others, but the song reaches its thematic and sonically thrilling climax in the final minutes as the entire tone of the song shifts. “I ended up in the back of a flashing car”, he sings as he gently describes the shimmering lights of the cityscape and ambulance siren. The song fades into “Blinding Lights” – the biggest pop hit of the year, which takes on a sinister new meaning in this context. Truly, no one has mastered this sleight of hand trick better than The Weeknd. – Kiel Hauck

3. Marina – “Man’s World”

This has been one heck of a year regarding social justice and reform. Historic protests against police brutality, and in the America election, the choice of our first female vice president —  just to name a couple. Marina has come swooping in from her break after 2019’s Love + Fear to bring us “Man’s World,” a scathing track about gender equality, one of many women to release commentary on the issue. As a woman, the time for artists to talk about important issues plaguing my demographic are always welcome, and Marina has dropped a truth bomb on us in this track. She also put her money where her mouth is by choosing an all-gal team for the track’s production. It’s absolutely my track of the year, with its drop in November completely upending any idea I had of my ranking. – Nadia Alves

2. MxPx – “Worries”

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, MXPX were one of the first bands to release an original song about the new reality we all faced. “Worries” managed to melt away much of the anxiety that I felt living through the height of Chicago’s lockdowns and inspired me to leave the quarantine I had been in and venture home for the first time in two months.

“Worries” managed to bypass fears of the disease at the height of the lockdowns in big cities, and express the emotional resonance of a classic MXPX song while inspiring listeners to persevere with enigmatic skate punk verses and a raging punk guitar chorus/bridge (“I’m not worried, I’ll be fine / Just want you to know you’re on my mind / I’m not worried, just worried sick, a little dose of you might do the trick / You’re the cure for worried sick”).

It’s almost solely because of this song that I began to gather myself again and prepare for the rest of the year in Chicago’s early May. Even now, in December, I give this song credit for inspiring me to cast off the fear of the Spring lockdowns and prepare for the return of the every day. It’s also been a constant soundtrack throughout the year as infections seemed to surge again, reminding me that a return to “normal life” is only a matter of time away. – Kyle Schultz

1. Dua Lipa – “Break My Heart”

It’s difficult to choose just one song from Future Nostalgia that fully encapsulates Dua Lipa’s thrilling breakthrough this year, but if “Don’t Start Now” was fan service for the general audience, “Break My Heart” represents Dua’s alt-pop queen potential. Featuring an irresistible interpolation of INXS’ “Need You Tonight”, this dance/disco track feels less like an 80’s homage and more like a doorway into the future of pop music. In short, it’s the most fully realized track of the Future Nostalgia concept.

But as you’re dancing, take a listen to Dua’s growth as a songwriter. “Break My Heart” is about those moments in an exciting new relationship when you’re standing on the edge of the cliff. Is it safe to jump? Who could ever know? “I’m indecisive, but this time I know for sure”, she sings on the opening verse before crooning, “It’s you in my reflection, I’m afraid of all the things you could do to me”, on the pre-chorus. It’s a giddy uncertainty we’ve all experienced set to the most electric soundtrack you could imagine. And in a year as dark as this, it’s a refreshing dose of light and innocence. – Kiel Hauck

Honorable Mention:

Run the Jewels – “Yankee and the Brave (Ep. 4)”
Billie Eilish – “No Time to Die”
Carly Rae Jepsen – “Comeback”
Ariana Grande – “Positions”
Childish Gambino – “Algorhythm”

Posted by Kiel Hauck

The Best Albums of 2020

Mercifully, 2020 is winding to an end. Not that a simple turn of the calendar will solve all of our problems, but as we reach the end of the year, there is a lot to process and reflect on – and maybe even learn from. One thing that has been a constant for the team at It’s All Dead this year is music. Music as a reprieve, music as a distraction, music as a friend. So we take a moment away from the dread to focus on some albums that brought us joy and helped us through the toughest moments of the past year.

A quick note before we dive into the list: Our goal each year is to give a clear representation of the music that mattered to us the most while also reflecting the music that simply mattered. The larger the area in the middle of that Venn diagram, the higher it ranks on the list. Noticeably absent on this year’s list is the album that arguably mattered the most: Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters.

During our team conversations as we began working on our end-of-the-year features, we realized that none of us had spent enough time with the album to warrant it making the list without it feeling extremely disingenuous. Right or wrong, we made the call to leave it off while acknowledging the impact of the album. If you haven’t heard it, take a listen.

So here we go. Take a look – and as always – let us know your favorite albums of the year in the replies!

15. Hot Mulligan – You’ll Be Fine

I feel like I often end up pulling some wild cards into our year-end lists, and this year my wild card is You’ll Be Fine. I meant to write about it when it released in March, but this year took a lot out of me which translated to a lot more listening than writing. For me, that meant returning to this Hot Mulligan album again and again, especially over the summer. It’s quintessential pop punk, which is both right up my alley and easy to get into. They explored more thoughtful songwriting on this album compared to their previous projects, moving closer to a Wonder Years level of consideration in their production. Even though I enjoyed their first album Pilot, this album makes me truly excited for the trajectory of this band: Up. – Nadia Alves

14. Knuckle Puck – 20/20

Though Knuckle Puck have been a growing force within the scene for years, the ominously named 20/20 is their most cohesive and well-structured album to date. Somehow finding the magic of normalcy, the album stands in contrast to the year it was released in and breathes fresh life into a genre that can quickly sound redundant—the midwest pop punk scene. 20/20 reminds the listener not to back away from the problems in their life, but instead reflect and learn on the experiences. Weaving traditional emo punk against some experimental tracks on the band’s signature sound, 20/20 finds Knuckle Puck forging ahead with a fire behind them that can only see the good even when it stares into the everyday horrors we all face.  – Kyle Schultz

13. Stand Atlantic – Pink Elephant

When pop punk is at its best, it allows us to lower our inhibitions, feel our feelings, and join a safe community chorus of fellow voices caught in the fray. Depending on who you ask, it’s been a while since that experience rang true, but Sydney, Australia, act Stand Atlantic are intent on reviving the spirit. Pink Elephant, the band’s sophomore effort, is everything a great pop punk release should be while constantly stretching its wings into new territory. Vocalist Bonnie Fraser unravels the tangles that hold her back, singing “My guts keep falling out / And I’m starting to disintegrate / I’ll carry on / Yeah, it’s just like that” on the album’s opener. Call it a lament if you want, but it works better as a thesis statement on forging ahead. – Kiel Hauck

12. Neck Deep – All Distortions Are Intentional

This is the first and only album on my list that is truly escapist. A concept album about fulfilling our emo dreams in a world where we truly care about others is a necessary course of action that could make true change if we implemented it in the real world. Easily one of the most positive and thought-provoking albums to come from the pop-punk genre this year, All Distortions Are Intentional is another addition to Neck Deep’s maturing discography, and a project by a band that has truly come into their own form of activism and wave-making. – Nadia Alves

11. New Found Glory – Forever + Ever x Infinity

New Found Glory albums are mostly easy to predict: loud, catchy and filled with easy sing-along choruses. Forever + Ever x Infinity excels in that it acts as an album filled with fairy tales. The band lean heavily on their roots of writing songs about relationships, but through a lens of maturity and humor. The result is an album that both reflects on the band’s roots in pop punk, as well as presses forward with an easycore crunch and shining pop choruses (“Greatest of all Time”). Sometimes cheesy, sometimes hopelessly romantic, New Found Glory’s 10th album acts as a perfect followup to the much celebrated Self-Titled album by reflecting on the themes of that record with a middle-aged point of view and the sobering reality that only time can grant. – Kyle Schultz

10. Run the Jewels – RTJ4

Hip hop fans waited patiently for the fourth installment from rap duo Run the Jewels, but RTJ4 actually arrived early. With the release date suddenly pushed forward in the midst of protests against police brutality due to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Arbery, Run the Jewels owned the moment and captured the national outrage. Like all previous Run the Jewels albums, RTJ4 is rife with rattling bass-lines and rapid fire lyrics from Killer Mike and El-P, but this installment feels like pointed protest music right from the jump (“Yankee and the Brave”). Maybe revolution music is a more apt descriptor. – Kiel Hauck

9. All Time Low – Wake Up, Sunshine

Wake Up, Sunshine is All Time Low’s best album in a decade, perfectly balancing the pop sensibilities the band have been striving for with the punk rock buzz that earned them an adoring audience. The album is mature and reflective, but also looks confidently forward with a style that hopefully comes to define the band moving forward. A thematic sister album to fan favorite Nothing Personal, Wake Up, Sunshine highlights the growth of the band (“Some Kind of Disaster”), as well as emphasizes their storytelling ability (“Wake Up, Sunshine”) and features the best song the band has written in years (“Sleeping In”). – Kyle Schultz

8. Halsey – Manic

Manic shouldn’t work. The third full-length album from Halsey is a mess. But like paint crawling itself across the canvas, the idiosyncrasies begin to intertwine, giving unique views of mental illness and the weight of fame as you zoom in and out of the portrait. Halsey’s greatest strength as an artist has always been her vulnerability and willingness to display her deepest fears in a way that feels more than relatable. With Manic, she somehow delivers her most cohesive work despite there being no clear genre. Simply change tracks to switch between country, rock, R&B, and more. The navigation of it all feels as honest and messy as any great therapy session should. – Kiel Hauck

7. Soccer Mommy – Color Theory

Many of the albums that ended up sticking out to me this year dealt with the heavy things. That is in part because I’m a heck of a pessimist, and also because the year we’ve had has been made for us pessimists. With Color Theory, Sophia Allison showed us contrast. With the color triad of yellow, blue and grey, she artfully wove a true story about loss, illness and grief – something too many of us have experienced in some way or another this year. I’m a sucker for her lo-fi sound, and it definitely added some variety to my music this year. Hopefully, Sophia Allison should be in for a great next couple of years as she rises in the indie pop sphere. – Nadia Alves

6. The Weeknd – After Hours

We were merely one week into quarantine and fear when The Weeknd dropped After Hours, an album that eerily captured the feelings of isolation so many of us were (and still are) feeling. On surface level, the album reads like textbook Tesfaye, but closer examination reveals deep and fascinating artistic maturity. After Hours studies remorse and self-reflection on the other side of a hedonistic ride. Here, the blinding lights and shimmering boulevard are blurry and distant – something to long for, but not before a winding back road of questioning and self-loathing. – Kiel Hauck

5. KennyHoopla – how will i rest in peace if i’m buried by a highway?//

KennyHoopla is the type of artist all musicians dream of being. His newest EP,  how will i rest in peace if i’m buried by a highway?//, perfectly blends elements of R&B, emo, new wave and pop, among other genres, to create a bridge across the realm of music. Although just a few songs in length, KennyHoopla takes advantage of each moment by weaving an intensely honest record filled with admissions of inadequacy and fantasticism (“dust//”). Delivered with emotional depth and the intensity of a superstar, KennyHoopla sounds vibrantly original and deeply nostalgic. In just six songs, his EP accomplishes more with its time than some musicians do in their entire careers. – Kyle Schultz

4. Hayley Williams – Petals for Armor

When I preordered my copy of Petals for Armor on vinyl, I did so with the expectation that it would be both a great album and my top album of the year. While it didn’t quite top my list, it felt like an album that truly mattered – an album she wrote for herself rather than for a mainstream audience. I love Petals, and I think it’s the most important project to come from Hayley Williams. She truly explored and processed a lot of things through the album, and she took us along for the ride and prompted us to be more introspective and openminded when it comes to taking care of our mental health. She brought up a lot of personal feelings regarding loss for me, and in turn, I ended up dealing with some of the things I had pushed away. I’m grateful for that. – Nadia Alves

3. Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia

English singer and songwriter Dua Lipa showed flashes of what was to come with her 2017 self-titled debut, but chose to shed away any preconceived notions of powerhouse pop with Future Nostalgia, an album bubbling with disco and dance spirit. Everything about it works, specifically because Dua Lipa takes full control of her art in every way without the slightest hint of restraint. 

The album never slows down, even as it veers between lanes, blurring the lines between its influences and Dua’s own original, melodic concoctions. “You want a timeless song / I want to change the game”, she tells us mere seconds into the album. A factory-made pop star she is not. What a fabulous invitation to lean into the experience and dance away the aches of the shittiest year in recent memory. – Kiel Hauck

2. Taylor Swift – folklore

Releasing one career-best album is a crowning achievement for any artist, but to deliver two within a year is something special. Swift’s surprise album folklore perfects her ability to tell a story by blending personal stories and fictional characters in such a way that it’s nearly impossible to tell which is which. Folklore excels as the perfect representation of who Swift is as an artist by stripping away everything that we thought made a Taylor Swift album—the glamorized production values, over-the-top choruses and the electrifying pop elements that have punctuated her recent albums. At its base level, folklore is an indie album of sweet songs (“mirrorball”), but the songs are intimate, intricate pieces of art with as much depth and scope as a fleshed-out pop hit.

Unafraid of the silence between notes, folklore puts the melody and story first and foremost. The album strips away all expectations fans had of who Swift is as an artist by showing them something better. Soft, sincere and honest even when fictional, Swift has reinvented her career by stripping her music to its essentials and finding just as much, if not more, meaning in each song (“mad woman”, “betty”). – Kyle Schultz

1. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

This year’s top album was actually quite a difficult and personal debate for me, but after a lot of reflection and back and forth, the bell rang and I lifted Phoebe Bridgers’ hand as Punisher was declared the winner. Her gentle delivery and poignant writing was a welcome break for me this year, a year when I’ve been so up in arms about — well, just about everything. It gave listeners something to direct their sadness and confusion at for 40 minutes and 37 seconds.

Phoebe didn’t shy away from the harsh reality of her life and her past in Punisher, and the raw honesty is what has kept me coming back throughout the latter half of the year. It takes a lot for me to consider an album as the best, and not only is it the best album of the year, it’s the best in Phoebe’s discography. She’s showed her maturity and individuality here, and that counts for everything in my book. – Nadia Alves

Honorable Mention

PVRIS – Use Me
Haim – Women in Music Pt. III
Lady Gaga – Chromatica
Blaqk Audio – Beneath the Black Palms
The Bombpops – Death in Venice Beach

Posted by Kiel Hauck

Review: Taylor Swift – folklore

At this point, there should be very little Taylor Swift could do that would shock us. Releasing her eighth (and possibly best) album less than a year after Lover, her seventh (and possibly best) album, is one example, though. Simply put, folklore is a masterpiece of a record that exemplifies the best of Swift as an artist while reigning in just as many aspects that made her a world renowned star. Restrained, introspective and overflowing with emotional stories, folklore is as much a perfect introduction to Swift as it is a departure of her sound.

You can buy or stream folklore on Apple Music.

Folklore is almost as much of a sonic departure for Swift as 1989 was at the time of its release. While Lover reveled in the silence between notes, the anthemic stadium pop still filtered through the gaps. It’s difficult to say that folklore, an album conceived during the coronavirus quarantine, is a natural progression of Lover even though it further strips away the electrifying pop sounds and delves deeper into the indie folk genre.

Co-written with Jack Antonoff, The National’s Aaron Dressner and Bon Iver, folklore is an indie folk album that revels in Swift’s signature storytelling abilities. However, where the album gains its strength is in the mixture of personal stories and fictional characters that blend together so well, it seems like this is how Swift has written her songs all along (“my tears richochet”).

Stripped of the overt poppy gloss, it would be easy to write folklore off as a return to Swift’s country roots, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The piano and acoustic led songs would be just as good if fleshed out further so as to make them stadium rumbling anthems. However, as is, the album is amongst the most intimate of Swift’s lyrics, even when the story isn’t about her.

On a surface level, folklore appears to be almost too relaxed (“cardigan”). It lacks Swift pushing her vocals to their limits, anthemic choruses or any of those hooks that would make for an obvious top radio single. Instead, Swift’s relaxed vocals force attention to melody and lyricism. Minimalistic, folklore puts the story at the forefront with the soft twinkle of piano, acoustic guitar and surgically precise orchestration relegated to the most intense moments (“august”).

If there is a theme to folklore, it is to turn the tables on the fans who pour over Swift’s lyrics to decipher what she is singing about. Each song of folklore seems to dance from real stories, to fictional characters to the speculative heartbreak expected on Swift’s early releases.

Opener “the 1” retraces the lost loves we all held as young adults (“Roaring twenties, tossing pennies in the pool / And if my wishes came true / It would’ve been you”). Meanwhile, “the last great american dynasty” pulls at similar themes to “The Lucky One” from Red (“Who knows, if she never showed up, what could’ve been / There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen / She had a marvelous time ruining everything”).

The twinkling piano of “mad woman” acts as a second act to Lover’s “The Man” in that it radiates years’ worth of rage from dealing with sexism, harkening back to “Look What You Made Me Do” as well as “the last great american dynasty” (“Every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy / What about that? / And when you say I seem angry, I get more angry”). Meanwhile, closing track “hoax” acts as a bookend to “the 1”, diving fully into the regret and anger of those true, lost loves (“Your faithless love’s the only hoax I believe in / Don’t want no other shade of blue but you / No other sadness in the world would do”).

The magic of folklore isn’t that it was a surprise release, but that it was a surprising delivery. Stripped of the over-the-top glam of her previous albums, Folklore manages to be just as poignant as any past releases, with Swift the artist reigning above Swift the pop star. If there is a fault in folklore, it’s that the album is a few songs too long, but I do not envy the person to decide which to cut. That folklore manages to carry the weight of the biggest pop star on the planet and retain the ingenuity of an up-and-comer is only further proof that Taylor Swift may be the best musical artist on the planet.

5/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and dropped his deodorant in the toilet today, the way that champions do.